City's economic arsenal spreads beyond bombs

Aberdeen: Bolstered by an influx of high-tech companies and hotels, the town, known for its proving ground, is coming into its own.

October 27, 2002|By Lisa Wiseman | Lisa Wiseman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Aberdeen always has been a company town.

Established in the mid-1800s and named in honor of an influential railroad man's native home of Aberdeen, Scotland, it first made a name for itself when the U.S. Army established the Aberdeen Proving Ground in 1917, six months after the United States entered World War I. The town's proximity to roads, shipping and railways made it an ideal place for a military facility.

As a center for military testing, research and training, the post is the Army's oldest active proving ground and the largest employer in Harford County. More than 7,500 civilians work at Aberdeen Proving Ground, which also has nearly 4,000 military personnel and an average of 3,000 people working for independent contractors. The post also supports more than 16,000 military retirees and members of their families.

And although Aberdeen's establishment, growth and productivity have been closely tied to the proving ground, things are changing, says Peter A. Dacey, the city manager.

"APG is the lifeblood of our community and has sustained it," he said. "But we are transforming from an APG-driven community to a town with multiple opportunities for employment, a diverse economy and diverse community. ... Now when we look around, we have major employers, we have small business, we have companies focusing on emerging technologies."

Aberdeen isn't all about ammunition. But it wasn't until the 1980s, Dacey said, that Aberdeen started to develop into its own city and not just a place where proving ground employees lived and worked.

The decade brought tremendous commercial development to the west end of town near Interstate 95. In addition to several shopping centers, a number of hotel chains arrived, adding more than 500 rooms suitable for the influx of independent contractors working for APG, as the military started to rely more on outside experts.

Meanwhile, the industrial base of the town's south side near U.S. 40 grew, as companies such as Pier 1 Imports and Frito Lay opened manufacturing and distribution plants, followed by Saks Fifth Avenue a few years later. The three warehouses have become major employers in the area.

With a firm military, residential, commercial and industrial base, Aberdeen is poised for its next major development, Dacey said.

"The future of Aberdeen is technology," he said

The center of the city's technological revolution is Aberdeen's Higher Education and Applied Technology (HEAT) Center. The 152-acre complex serves technology-based businesses as an office park, a research, training and teaching facility, and a high-tech and small-business incubator.

"Harford County in general has put emphasis on tech development, and the HEAT initiative is its real focus," Dacey said.

Aberdeen's location close to roads and railways and its proximity to major cities made it an ideal location for a technology incubator.

"When you look at any research triangle ... there's always one key anchor," Dacey said. "For Aberdeen, APG is that anchor for technology. That is what they do. They are doing major research and development."

The center is home to more than a dozen high-tech companies. Their work includes engineering, environmental testing and designing medical equipment and rubber components.

In addition, the Johns Hopkins University, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, Towson University, the University of Maryland, College Park, Villa Julie College, and Harford and Cecil community colleges offer courses through the HEAT Center. The online-based University of Phoenix will move in soon.

Another future tenant is technology giant Battelle. The Ohio-based company is scheduled to open a 73,000-square-foot facility next year at the center, bringing 350 jobs to Aberdeen.

Center tenants enjoy the benefits of cost-competitive real estate and rents with a satellite downlink, interactive televisions, an interactive classroom with audio and video, computer labs for training classes and a long-distance learning center.

Aberdeen will never be the next Silicon Valley, Dacey said. "I see Aberdeen in the future will always maintain its small-town flavor," he said, pointing out that Aberdeen won an "All-American City" award in 1997 for its embodiment of the ideal American way of life.

In keeping with that image, the community maintains a fierce pride in its local hero: former Orioles star Cal Ripken Jr. He grew up in Aberdeen and has strong roots here.

In addition to the Ripken Museum, Aberdeen is the home to the Ironbirds minor-league baseball team and the new Ripken Stadium.

The stadium is part of a larger plan, the Aberdeen Project. When completed, the park area will include the stadium and a baseball academy large enough to accommodate 200 young people and coaches. It is expected to feature several youth-sized stadiums modeled after famous ballparks, including a mini-Camden Yards.

In its first year, Ripken Stadium has drawn fans not only from Harford County but also from across the country who love baseball and love Ripken.

For Yogi Kumar, owner of Yogi's sports bar in Aberdeen, having the Ironbirds in town has been a natural boon to his business, now in its sixth year. Kumar had no idea that there would one day be a baseball stadium close by when he decided to open his restaurant. He just knew it was a good area.

"It's close to the highway and most of the major hotels. I used to work in the hotel industry here, and I know that there are many contractors coming and going. ... I knew it would be a good location for my business."

Right before he opened his doors to the public, Kumar heard about the possibility of the stadium. "I knew that was going to be great for me," he said.

Now Yogi's is the official sports bar of the Ironbirds.

"The Ironbirds made us an awesome summer. It's nice to see the bar ... standing room only," Kumar said.

Also, Kumar said, you never know who might be stopping by for a burger.

"I can tell you Cal likes the place," he said.

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